Sunday, November 29, 2009

Science vs. Religion – False Assumption or True Conflict?

I want to look again at the science/religion topic – this time specifically from a science advocacy perspective. In this context, religion poses a problem because it interferes with the acceptance of science by a large portion of the public. Why? Because many people think that science will threaten their religious beliefs. Chris Mooney argues that this is a mistaken assumption. But correct or not, the sentiment is so powerful that it effectively blocks much of the effort by scientists and educators to promote science in the US. Therefore, in order to raise the status of science in our culture, Mooney claims that we will first have to tackle the misconception that science and religion are opposed.

It won’t be easy. The "science vs. religion" narrative is used in media coverage to the point of cliché (the "battle" most recently being fought in schools over the teaching of evolution). It is also continually perpetuated by people on both extreme sides of the debate – religious fundamentalists on the one hand and militant atheists on the other. Meanwhile, the Americans in the middle, those who don’t necessarily posit any inherent conflict between the sciences and religion, are relatively quiet (Mooney dubs them the “silent majority”). The pressure is on the science advocates to encourage the silent majority to speak up. Until they do, we’ll continue to hear only a few voices.

And they’re not the voices that Mooney wants to hear. At least, not the only ones. He admits there is a place for denouncing religion, but it shouldn't take center stage among scientists. Mooney harshly criticizes figures like the popular science blogger PZ Myers and other vocal atheists for their gratuitous attacks on religion (Myers apparently skewed a Eucharist with a rusty nail, chucked it in the trash, and displayed a photo of his “Great Desecration” online, just to make a point). Coming from what the journal Nature has rated as one of the "Top Five Science Blogs", Myers' hostility toward religion only heightens the tension between the scientific community and much of the religious public. Insults and ridicule turn even the religious moderates away from science, all the while giving religious fundamentalists more ammunition (an anti-science creationist can quite easily point to the unholy atheists as proof that science is an attack on their faith). If promoting science is a priority, scientists cannot afford to bolster the science vs. religion narrative – it’s a useless strategy.

It seems clear from Mooney’s arguments that it may be tactically beneficial to take a conciliatory attitude towards religion. In some cases, like teaching evolution, it may be politically necessary to gently woo a religious audience into a natural engagement with science, rather than shoving the “truth” in their faces. But what if the goal is larger than that? Dawkins, for example, has stated that while winning the battle over evolution would be nice, he is fighting a larger war. It is a war over deep truths of the nature of the universe, and in this fight, religion (inasmuch as it claims ownership of these deep truths) really does get in the way of science. For him, the conflict is real, and denying it exists is dishonest and wholly unscientific.

So it looks like we are faced with two competing priorities. Those in Mooney’s camp want to focus on promoting science in American culture by winning political battles, and those in Dawkins' camp want to defend scientific truth at any cost. These are different goals, but I don’t think they require two vastly different strategies of communication. Regardless of the topic of discussion, adopting a disparaging tone usually doesn’t help. But more importantly, spewing “truths” at people, whether about the value of teaching evolution or the falsities of the virgin birth, won’t change their mind. The message must be packaged in such a way as to persuade, which requires “a sensitivity to the state of mind of the audience” (the words of science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson). Combining this sensitivity with the facts, shaping the content and form of a message to best fit the audience’s capacity to receive it, is how communication functions at its best, at any level. Ultimately the most important thing is to keep the channels of conversation open and not prematurely shut down any chance at dialogue by beginning with a fight.

Note that while it doesn't come up in favor of either position on the "science vs. religion" issue,  this strategy spans both the goals of science advocacy and defending scientific "truth". It is about creating impact and being effective – with any audience. And given that the religious audience forms about 80% of the American public, it seems wise to consider how religion will affect the capacity to understand any message from the scientific community.  I think Mooney would agree.

1 comment:

  1. It would be nice to think that science and religion could have a reasoned conversation. If it were possible, the religious deniers of science would soon be persuaded. The problem is that one persuades someone else by presenting evidence, but seriously religious people cannot be persuaded. The even deny the evidence, even though they will accept fantasy as the basis of their Faith. That is why the two are utterly incompatible. Science is skeptical until evidence persuades one to believe, but religion is credulous over supposed divine claims but cannot be persuaded by plain evidence. The only way these opposite positions can be compatible is by each ignoring the other. That is what most everyday believers do when they accept scientific discoveries. They keep the two in separate compartments of their understanding.